Spinoza’s Religion: A New Reading of the Ethics by Clare Carlisle - review by Steven Nadler

Steven Nadler

Letting Go of God

Spinoza’s Religion: A New Reading of the Ethics


Princeton University Press 272pp £25 order from our bookshop

‘Are you religious?’ and ‘Do you believe in God?’ are notoriously difficult questions to answer. The problem, of course, is that one is not sure what is being asked, and especially what is meant by ‘religious’ and ‘God’. Must one even believe in God, in whatever sense of the term, in order to be religious? Could not an atheist, someone who is not merely agnostic about the existence of a deity but who positively denies that there is any such thing, nonetheless sincerely and legitimately claim to be a religious person?

In her wonderful new book, Spinoza’s Religion, Clare Carlisle addresses these questions from the perspective of the 17th-century Dutch philosopher Baruch de Spinoza (1632–77). The case of Spinoza is particularly interesting because in 1656, when he was only twenty-three, he was permanently expelled (put under herem – essentially a form of ostracism or excommunication) from the Amsterdam Portuguese-Jewish community. We do not know what exactly his offence was or why he received the harshest, most vitriolically phrased herem ever issued by the leaders of that community. The relevant document speaks only of his ‘abominable heresies’ and ‘monstrous deeds’. Thus, there is a bit of mystery surrounding the event. At the same time, for anyone who has read Spinoza’s mature treatises, the Ethics (begun in the 1660s but not published until after his death) and the ‘scandalous’ Theologico-Political Treatise (1670), which one overwrought contemporary critic called ‘a book forged in hell by the devil himself’, there really is no mystery. Spinoza rejects the supernatural, providential God of Judaism (and Christianity and Islam) as a superstitious, anthropomorphic fiction; insists that miracles are absolutely, metaphysically impossible, since the order of nature is fixed and admits of no exceptions; and argues that the Bible is nothing but a work of human literature, an anthology of writings produced in different historical and political contexts by various authors that were transmitted through the centuries in a ‘corrupt and mutilated’ form and selected and edited in the Second Temple period. Spinoza also denies that there is a soul that survives the death of the body to receive divine reward or punishment in some ‘world to come’. In his view, the notion of personal immortality is a pernicious fiction that encourages only irrational hopes and fears among the credulous masses and is used by devious ecclesiastics to control people’s lives and manipulate their hearts and minds. For Spinoza, when you are dead, you are dead. Virtue does have its rewards, but they are entirely natural benefits enjoyed in this lifetime. All of these claims, which we have some reason for thinking Spinoza was expressing around the time of his herem, would have provoked not only Amsterdam’s Sephardim, a community of refugees from the Iberian inquisitions, but their Calvinist Dutch hosts as well.

Spinoza always resented the charge that he was an atheist. On one occasion, when he was accused by a critic of ‘teaching sheer atheism with furtive and disguised arguments’, he protested that

If he had known [what manner of life I pursue] he would not have been so readily convinced that I teach atheism. For atheists are usually inordinately fond of honours and riches, which I have always despised, as is known to all who are acquainted with me.

A cleverly evasive answer, it seems: ‘I am not an atheist because I do not lead an immoral life.’ More helpful, however, was his response to another critic, who proclaimed that Spinoza had ‘renounced all religion’:

Does that man, pray, renounce all religion who declares that God must be acknowledged as the highest good, and that he must be loved as such in a free spirit? And that in this alone does our supreme happiness and our highest freedom consist?

The term ‘atheist’ can be just as ambiguous as ‘religious’ and ‘God’. In the 17th century, it was essentially an all-purpose word used against anyone whose view of God departed from orthodoxy – much in the way that ‘communist’ was (and is) used in the USA to cast aspersion on political opponents (and much in the way that ‘Spinozist’ was used in the early modern period after Spinoza’s works were posthumously published and condemned). But Spinoza does not only dismantle the orthodox notion of a personal God, which he regards as a source of human misery. He also famously refers to ‘God or Nature’ (Deus sive Natura), which suggests that God is nothing but nature, and that ‘God’ can broadly be construed to refer both to the visible cosmos and to the unseen but fundamental power, laws and principles that govern it. And this, to me at least, looks like true atheism. In Spinoza’s view, all there is is nature. There is no supernatural; there is nothing that does not belong to nature and that is not subject to its causal processes. This is true whether we are talking about bodies and physical events or minds and mental events. Spinoza’s aim, moreover, is a reductive, naturalistic one: it is not to divinise or deify nature and make it an object of worshipful awe or religious reverence, as a pantheist might do, but rather to naturalise God and empty the notion of any superstitious, reverential or moral content. Spinoza’s Deus has no beliefs or expectations, issues no commands, makes no judgements and is without any emotions; nor is it a wise, benevolent and just being. The essence of God, in his account, is just the power of nature.

Does it follow that Spinoza was not himself religious and that his philosophy was antithetical to religion? By no means. As Carlisle shows, Spinoza was out to reform religion, not eliminate it. Spinoza’s ‘true’ religion (religio) has nothing to do with the sectarian, doctrinal, superstitious, fear-mongering organised religions of his (and our) time. Rather, religion is about living under the guidance of reason, not the irrational passions. This means doing what is truly best for oneself and acting towards others in a virtuous and loving way with justice and charity. The religious person who obtains a proper knowledge of self and of God (or nature) experiences in this life what Carlisle calls the ‘joy, peace and rest’ that the popular imagination reserves for heaven.

* * *

Carlisle’s case for a religious and spiritual reading of Spinoza is a compelling and eloquent one. Going somewhat further, however, she argues that it is wrong to read him as an atheist. After all, God is ubiquitous in the Ethics, from the metaphysical propositions of part one, where Spinoza eliminates all the psychological, moral and teleological aspects of God that ground superstitious rites and ceremonies, to the moral principles set out in parts four and five, which culminate in the demonstration that our supreme happiness and ‘blessedness’ consist in the ‘intellectual love of God’.

Carlisle emphasises Spinoza’s concept of what she labels ‘being-in-God’. Early in the Ethics, Spinoza argues that there is and can be only one substance, where ‘substance’ is defined as ‘what is in itself and conceived through itself’ – that is, what has absolute ontological independence. Everything else is ‘in’ and dependent upon substance as a ‘mode’. Rocks, trees, giraffes and human beings are all modes of substance. Substance is unique, eternal, infinite and self-caused (in other words, exists necessarily). God is, by definition, a unique, eternal, infinite, self-caused being; therefore, God is substance, and everything else is in God.

What it means for all things to be ‘in God’ has been subject to debate ever since Spinoza’s Amsterdam friends began meeting in the 1660s to read and discuss the manuscript of the Ethics. What Carlisle does, and does well, is show how, for human beings, to be in God is not merely an ontological status – what we are – but also an epistemological task and a normative moral goal. We are in God as finite beings, necessarily. But the challenge for us is to overcome our devotion to the passive life of the senses and the imagination and increase our power and activity by acquiring knowledge through reason and intuition (scientia intuitiva). We need especially to know what we are and where we stand in the grand scheme of things. That is, we need to come to an understanding of how we relate to God, as well as how we should relate to other human beings.

As I read Spinoza, what this means is that we need to gain an understanding of nature, since God and nature are one and the same thing. Carlisle, however, rejects this identification of God with nature and insists on the transcendence of Spinoza’s God. She wants to have it both ways, in fact: immanence (panentheism – everything in God – rather than pantheism) and transcendence. I am not convinced; I think that Carlisle is trying to drive wedges where there is no room for them. I note as well that Carlisle’s Spinoza is very much a Christian thinker – not just in the sense that Spinoza believed Christ to be a supremely gifted moral teacher who, more than any other prophet, understood the divine message of love (and this was certainly Spinoza’s view), but also in the sense that the spirit of Spinoza’s philosophy is in line with that of Augustine, Anselm and Aquinas. In this respect, I sorely missed any substantive discussion in her book of what were undoubtedly crucial Jewish philosophical and theological influences on Spinoza. Be that as it may, her presentation of what religiosity consists of for Spinoza is an illuminating one. Religio is an epistemic, affective and moral achievement: it is virtue and freedom expressed through the use of reason, accompanied by the proper feelings and attitudes.

In a recent essay, the New York Times columnist Ross Douthat outlined a path to becoming religious and ‘finding faith’ through a belief in supernatural beings, intelligent creation and miracles. Spinoza’s religion has nothing to do with this. His religion is based in ethics, without creeds, confessions or superstitions. Being truly religious is not a matter of what you believe or how or where or even if you pray. Rather, it consists only in following the simple moral precept to love your neighbour, to act towards all with justice and charity. No matter how conventionally pious your thoughts about God may be, if you fail to observe ethical behaviour you are impious; and even if you have false beliefs about God, if they inspire you to act with justice and charity then you are truly religious.

Carlisle is a learned and (it seems) not impartial guide to Spinozistic religion. But her book is not just a brief for her own reading of some difficult texts. It is also a finely written and thoughtful introduction to Spinoza’s philosophy for anyone who is curious as to why this thinker, dead for almost 350 years, remains vitally relevant today.

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